Sakura season underway in Japan

People in Japan are enjoying cherry blossom season — and for the first time in four years they can gather under the sakura trees with family, friends, and coworkers to celebrate. Many of the restrictions that were in place during the coronavirus pandemic have been lifted, along with revelers' spirits.

The Meteorological Agency announced on March 14 that the trees had started blooming in Tokyo, 10 days earlier than usual, and six days earlier than last year. The blossoms are expected to peak between March 21 and 24.

Meteorological Agency officials announced on Tuesday that 11 buds were opening on the benchmark cherry blossom tree of the Somei-yoshino variety at Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine.

Across Japan, private forecaster Weather Map predicts blossoms about one week earlier than average in many areas.

It expects the season to start on March 17 in Nagoya City; March 18 in Fukuoka City, Hiroshima City and Matsuyama City; March 21 in Osaka City; March 22 in Kyoto City; March 24 in Kanazawa City; March 25 in Sendai City; and April 20 in Sapporo City.

Restrictions lifted

In Tokyo, famous cherry blossoms spots have reopened. Metropolitan Government officials say they will allow people to enjoy locations such as Ueno Park, where picnics are permitted in a designated area.

Meguro Ward — which hosts a riverside spectacle — drew about three million visitors to its Sakura Festival in 2019. The event was canceled the past three years due to the pandemic, but preparations are underway for the event scheduled to run March 18 -- April 9.

Officials say they have infection mitigation measures in place. Visitors are asked not to stop walking while they take in the views along a four-kilometer stretch of the Meguro River. The path will be one-way, and people are discouraged from talking loudly, drinking alcohol, and eating as they stroll. Parties are banned.

At Inokashira Park in Tokyo, picnics are allowed.

Sakura season starts earlier

In recent years, cherry trees in most parts of Japan have started flowering relatively early. In the 1970s and 80s in Tokyo, buds tended to open from late March through early April. Since the start of this century, blooming is starting more than a week earlier on average.

Experts say global warming has a role in this. Terai Mikito of the Flower Association of Japan says in urban areas, so-called "heat island phenomena" may be responsible, referring to certain areas where higher temperatures are observed.

He cites two other factors that may be causing cherry trees in Tokyo to flower first nationwide. "The blooming is determined by how cold the winter has been, and how quickly temperatures rise in spring," Terai explains. He says the winter in western Japan doesn't get as cold as it does in the capital, and notes temperatures rise fast with the arrival of spring in Tokyo.

NHK World-Japan will update this map daily.